Get REAL: E is for Empathy (The F word in business)

Mar 31, 2021
Today's business world is full of clichés which, in time, became accepted as fundamental truths about the way the world functions. One of the most common being: It’s nothing personal, it is just business. It serves as explanation for many dubious and non-effective business decisions and practices.

However... Managers provide information, feedback, news that have an impact on the job, lifestyle, opportunities, status, income, health and / or well-being of the person. In what way is it not personal?

On average, employees spend 75% of their waking time in and around work: preparing for work (in real world or virtually), working, and relaxing after work. Employees often spend more time with colleagues than with family and friends.

And managers and leaders still believe that their actions are nothing personal, just business ...

Feelings have been the “F” word in the business world for longer than we care to remember. How it came to be the all-accepted truth that feelings (emotions) don’t belong in a workplace? If it is so, where it came from?

Emotions are discouraged in business simply because the managers and leaders do not have enough skills to deal with them in the right way. Many of them are breaking in cold sweats thinking about their employees having emotional breakdowns in their offices.

Let’s be honest: prospects of an employee running out of the office in tears, kicking and screaming (under the normal circumstances) is similar to being in an air crash: it can happen, but not very likely. It is truth that some employees can’t keep their self-control, however the percentage of those prone to emotional outbursts is significantly disproportional to the amount of fear that forces managers to avoid them at all costs.

Research shows that employees evaluate their workplace both emotionally and cognitively, but emotions primarily determine their sense of satisfaction with their environment. If a manager refuses to notice, accept, and deal with a person’s emotions, he or she may unconsciously underestimate the sense of personal satisfaction that is key to that person’s motivation, behavior, and performance.

The slippery grounds of feelings and emotions in the business world are leading to diminishing the value of empathy, paradoxically one of the most overused words in the recent times.

Once you start googling the simple word “empathy” and you scroll down from dictionary meaning, synonyms, pronunciations… some of the first references start with “the dangers of empathy in leadership”, “6 difficult questions for empathetic leaders”, “10 common mistakes compassionate leaders make”… 11 headaches, 12 challenges… and so on.

So, let’s try putting things into context of leadership: What has empathy have to do with leadership?  Everything. Simply because leadership is about having the ability to relate and connect and listen and bond with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives. At its core, leadership is ultimately about others: about inspiring them to take actions beyond their capabilities, leading them in a direction that is compelling and inspiring. And empathy is the foundation of those actions.

Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others. It means you’re aware of their feelings and their thinking. What it doesn’t mean is that you have to agree with their point of view: You are willing to understand and appreciate it. For real.

Empathy also teaches us a forgotten skill: listening. We can try to find excuses in the pandemic for not having patience and willingness to listen to others, but the roots of our not-listening culture are much deeper and started much earlier. Social media promoting virtual world and virtual communication has pushed us into consuming huge amounts of superficial information. In that jungle we naturally tend to focus on those that confirm our beliefs, values and biases. Everything else takes too long and requires too much work. Our anxiety-driven world (now more than ever) is draining our emotional capacity to even acknowledge other people’s challenges.

So, we learned how to pretend to listen. It’s the kind of listening where we are just thinking up what we are going to say next, if we are on the same conversational planet at all. From the outside, everything is by the book: the right amount of head nodding, eye contact in place, body leaning towards the other party – the only thing missing is the mind. It is elsewhere (in mortgage payments, car repair, COVID pandemic, upcoming management meeting, potential layoffs… ). Fake listening is perfected in today ‘s world (business and otherwise). It helps managers and leaders seem interested in people around them while at the same time being focused only on themselves and the overwhelming burden of juggling various challenges at the same time.

Empathy (luckily, a skill that can be learned) teaches us how to relieve ourselves from that burden by actually LISTENING to others. It means putting our complete focus on the person in front of us and not getting easily distracted by what’s on our monitor or smartphone. By learning this relatively simple skill we can realize that other people might (and probably do) have similar issues, insecurities, hardships and challenges.  It promotes effective communication which, in turn, promotes valuing differences and different approaches to the world.

The concept of REAL approach to leadership emphasizes empathy playing a critical role in one’s ability to be a successful leader. Learning how to listen and promote empathy in the workplace will help us  gain a greater awareness of the needs of the employees; create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback; help us to understand and explore problems employees face and how to help them resolve them.  And the last, but, by no means the least, showing that we are real human beings with all it entails, including the dreaded feelings and emotions.

They say that empathy is about “wearing other people’s shoes”. The famous author George Orwell did just that: after serving several years in British Burma, he returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. He dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and homeless. The result, described in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and changed many of his points of view. He realized that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.

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